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Is It Safe to Use Nail Polish Remover on a Cold Sore?

By Erin J. Hill
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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For most individuals, using nail polish remover on a cold sore is generally safe and should not cause any long-term ill effects. Those who have never used acetone-based remover should test an area of skin first to ensure a rare allergic reaction doesn't occur. Nail polish remover should not be applied too close to the eyes and it should not be ingested.

Using nail polish remover to treat a cold sore is usually considered a home remedy. Many individuals swear by this method, although there are similar tactics using less harsh substances. The premise behind this treatment is that the polish remover dries out the cold sore more quickly than would occur without using any form of treatment. It is important to perform this remedy correctly to avoid injury or skin irritation.

When using nail polish remover on the skin, it important to use a small amount. It is generally applied using a cotton swab, which can be dipped into the solution and then applied directly to the affected area. This is only recommended for areas of skin that are away from the eyes, genitals, and other sensitive areas. Genital herpes-related lesions, which are similar to cold sores and form due to a similar viral infection, should not be treated this way. This especially important when sores occur on the genitals themselves.

A low-fume polish remover should be used, and treatment should be performed in a well-ventilated area. Hands should be washed thoroughly both before and after treatment to avoid getting remover in the eyes. The mouth should be kept closed during application to ensure that no remover is ingested. It is not a good idea to perform this treatment on a cold sore that is inflamed, oozing, or bleeding. If burning or pain occurs, the area should be rinsed with cool water.

While the risk of complications is low, using nail polish remover on a cold sore is not recommended by any particular medical association or establishment. Sores that do not clear up after a week or that become infected should be examined by a medical professional. Gentler treatments are available in the form of over-the-counter ointments and creams. Toothpaste, rubbing alcohol, and antibacterial ointments can also be used as home remedies to help cold sores heal more quickly.

What Are Cold Sores?

Cold sores, also known as fever blisters, show up as a cluster of tiny blisters or lesions. The incredibly common herpes simplex virus causes these lesions. Most people will contract this virus at some point in their lifetime. Many recover and won’t get another cold sore, but some will deal with recurrences.

An estimated 67% of the population has been infected with the herpes simplex virus. Although it can be transmitted sexually, it can spread by close contact with saliva and mucus

How To Prevent the Spread of Cold Sores

It can be tough to treat cold sores, so focusing on reducing their spread can be a good offensive tactic to take care of them. Generally, cold sores spread by coming into contact with the bodily fluid of someone that has them.

Avoiding kissing, using the same utensils, and hand washing are the best ways to prevent the spread of cold sores. Anyone with a cold sore should take action and ensure that they aren’t spreading the germs to others.

Infected people need to take care when near infants and children. Kissing and cuddling babies is tempting, but the germs from a burst cold sore can cause severe illness.

Where Do Cold Sores Appear?

Cold sores most frequently appear on the lips and around the mouth, but this isn’t the only place they can pop up. The cheeks, nose, and inside of the mouth are also common places for cold sores to develop. 

Cold sores that appear on genitals are different from the cold sores that appear on the face or mouth. A person experiencing sores on their genitals should see a doctor to test for STDs. These lesions can’t be treated with nail polish remover. It’s also easy to mistake other STDs for cold sores.

Cold Sore Symptoms

A cold sore isn’t just unsightly. Unfortunately, they can also be quite uncomfortable, so, understandably, people want to get rid of them quickly. The blisters are often itchy and sore. Sometimes the area where the cold sore appears will be tingly or itchy before the cold sore appears. 

The first time a person gets a cold sore can also result in flu-like symptoms. Fever, sore throat, and nausea are all common symptoms of a first-time infection. These are temporary and typically don’t return after the first cold sore.

How Long Are Cold Sores Contagious?

A person with a cold sore should assume that they are still contagious as long as they are experiencing symptoms. This includes any visible blisters or scabbing. Usually, symptoms resolve within a few weeks. 

As long as symptoms are still present, people with a cold sore should avoid contact with others that will put them at risk for infection. It’s also vital that the person with the cold sore wash their hands frequently to prevent spreading the disease.

What To Do if Nail Polish Remover Doesn’t Work

Most cold sores will resolve on their own without treatment. If nail polish remover doesn’t work, the person experiencing symptoms can wait it out. Other treatments will help reduce the lesion and discomfort if waiting seems too uncomfortable.

If a cold sore is very bothersome, ice can help reduce swelling and pain in the short term. Pain relievers are also a quick option for easing symptoms. 

A professional should treat a cold sore that shows signs of infection. Below are some signs that infection has set in.

  • Excessive swelling
  • Redness
  • Red streaking
  • Heat on or around the cold sore
  • Fever
  • Thick pus
  • Foul odor

A doctor should examine if a cold sore lasts longer than a few weeks without improvement. There is always the chance that it is not a cold sore or that the patient suffers from an underlying condition that weakens the immune system.

Things To Avoid With a Cold Sore

Sometimes treating a cold sore is more about what should be avoided while it heals rather than what to treat it with. Several things will irritate a cold sore and prevent it from healing.

It’s important to never pick at cold sores or scabs, as it can cause infection and make any pain or itchiness worse. It can also be helpful to steer clear of salty or spicy foods.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By anon1000320 — On Aug 22, 2018

Those who don't get them can never fully understand, I'm sorry. Not even doctors. Can't understand how painful, how long lasting, how painful, how freaking long lasting! they are.

OTC meds do nothing for me, or prescription either. Shorten the 10-12 days by a day or two? Not worth the money, sorry.

Nail polish remover works! If you can catch it at the tingle and be diligent dabbing every hour...you can make it just go away. It's like a miracle.

Somehow I missed the tingle and Saturday afternoon I felt two coming at the top of my lip. One was just red and the other about a quarter inch away was already a tiny blister. I got to work and dotted remover on every hour on the hour and now it's Tuesday and one is gone completely without blistering and the other is a pin head sized raw patch (I was scrubbing my face with a washcloth and forgot! I know, I know...all the sufferers just cringed. It was tiny but it hurt man!). The raw patch is my fault

because it was almost completely dried when I rubbed it. Regardless, it stayed pin sized and never grew to eraser sized and the other just went away. Three days!

I want to yell from the roof tops! It's magical!

By anon991861 — On Jul 23, 2015

@bear78 - If you do not get cold sores it may be difficult for you to understand. Trust me, moderate acetone contact with the skin is safe. Acetone, however, is transdermal, and it does end up in the bloodstream. Still, keep in mind that the human body produces acetone and disposes of it of it through normal metabolic processes and it normally present in the blood and urine of a healthy person.

With that said, having tried acetone on a cold sore, I can tell you why someone would do this: The OTC treatments typically only shorten the duration of an outbreak by 1 to 2 days, and sometimes by only a few hours. A cold sore is aesthetically unpleasing, socially stigmatizing, painful, and an outbreak means having to take extra precautions to ensure the virus is not spread to other parts of the face or to other people.

The acetone treatment appeals to many people for different reasons. For me it is because I've tried every OTC treatment available, and I'm tired of tossing money away for products that perform their function very poorly. For some, truly it is because the acetone is at hand and the other options are down the road at the store, and for some it is a matter of cost alone.

After trying every other treatment, I favor the acetone because it works for me. I use 100% acetone, the kind you get in the tin can at the hardware store. I dry the sore every couple of hours using a saturated Q-Tip, and then I apply a small amount of Neosporin antibiotic cream to keep the topical area moist, though I would imagine Vaseline would work just as well.

The application of the Neosporin to keep the area "moist" may seem odd since I'm trying to dry the sore out. However, moist skins heals faster (BandAids retain moisture, which is why bandaged cuts heal faster than cuts that are allowed to simply be exposed and dry). I want to dry out the sore, but I want the surrounding skin to be able to heal over the area ravaged by the virus. So, acetone for the sore, Neosporin for the skin.

If I used, let's say, Abreva, it can sometimes stop the sore from appearing if I can apply it quickly enough. Unfortunately, there are times when I don't have Abreva on me and it may be half a day before I can get to a tube of anything OTC. If you catch it too late, and this can be by hours, a sore will appear.

Now suppose the OTC treatment fails and I wake up with a nice and huge yellow oozing sore on my lip and I have to meet an important client in a few hours. I can completely "wipe" away any trace of the cold sore with an acetone saturated Q-Tip. Really. Just keep gently swabbing the sore for about ten minutes and it's gone. A quick press of some tissue to "juice" the sore a bit, a little more acetone for a final "drying," and then some Neosporin. Now, where there was once a yellow and festering lesion of shame, there may only be a small reddened area.

A person's entire attitude on life hinges on their self-esteem. For some, the though of being seen with a festering cold sore can be a serious determent to their self-esteem. So, if you really wonder why someone would do this, ask yourself why anyone does anything that prevents anguish.

By anon983570 — On Dec 31, 2014

Acetone does a great job at drying out the sore. As long as it's not in your mouth, it's not a problem. Abreva doesn't really stop it from replicating, but acetone feels like it completely prevents the virus from growing.

By anon983558 — On Dec 31, 2014

Acetone is a very good treatment for cold sores. It dries them out very effectively, which prevents the virus from replicating. There isn't a more effective way to dry out a cold sore than to use acetone (or else it wouldn't be so popular).

To everyone saying nail polish remover is toxic and shouldn't be put on the skin, you are not understanding the dangers of acetone.

There are only four warnings on the label on my 100 percent acetone nail polish remover (two are health-related):

1. It's flammable, so don't use near flames, or smoke when you use it. Be sure it's in a ventilated area (same applies for rubbing alcohol, minor fumes aren't dangerous)

2. It can irritate your eyes. If it gets in your eyes, remove contact lenses, and rinse them out with water (same applies for rubbing alcohol)

3. It can be harmful if it's ingested, so if you swallow more than a drop or two, drink lots of fluids and call a Poison Control Center (the same is true for rubbing alcohol, minor amounts aren't dangerous. You will feel pain in your throat and stomach long before toxicity becomes a concern.)

4. Lastly, it can mess up some fabrics. "Skin" is not listed as one of those fabrics (wood finishes, plastics, and synthetics).

My point is that acetone is really no more harmful than rubbing alcohol, which everyone can agree is a safe topical treatment for cuts and sores. It serves the same essential purpose as isopropyl alcohol, but it's much more effective at drying out the sore. I use isopropyl for preventing infection and acetone for drying. It really is the most effective treatment I've ever used, and I've used them all!

By anon965237 — On Aug 10, 2014

I get a cold sore on my lip every two years, like clockwork. They last two weeks from appearance to disappearance. The first week is a nightmare. Recently I had my first 'double header' - two cold sores, next to each other, three weeks apart.

The first, I treated with 100 percent alcohol (stung like crazy) and what I found out to be an expired tube of Zovirax. Two weeks.

Acetone sounds crazy, but I found a good, non-stinky brand at 80 percent strength with vitamin E. I carefully popped each of the tiny blisters with a sterilized needle and soaked up the fluid, then applied acetone for one minute and new Zovirax after with a cotton bud five times a day.

Two days later and I can barely see the sore unless I get really close to the mirror. It's dried up, stopped pulsing and I believe it's well on the way to healing. I've got to admit that I think a lot of home remedies are bunkum, but this is one that really works.

By anon964423 — On Aug 05, 2014

I get chronic cold sores -- at least one to four a year -- and I've been using nail polish remover for years and it is the best treatment out there -- trust me. It sounds scary but you get used to the smell and stinging because it truly has amazing results.

Years ago, when I got a cold sore, I used abreva and it caused the thing to nearly triple in size to literally the size of a dime. I got so desperate I tried nail polish remover and thank god I did. I have perfected my method over the years. I usually dip a Q-tip in the remover and hold it on the sore for a few minutes (burning the means it's working). Then I cut a small piece of cotton ball, dip it in the polish remover and place it on the sore with a band aid over the top. I leave that on overnight or during the day.

I've tried pure acetone and regular polish remover and they both work, but I seem to get slightly better results with the regular remover with protein in it.

I told my dad about this and he now uses this method too, even though he hates the smell. If you're willing to fork over the money, prescription drugs work pretty well too, but you have to take them within the first 24 hours of getting the cold sore to make it work, and, once you get to a doctor and then go to the drugstore, it might be too late to be seriously helpful. Hope this helps everyone out there suffering from cold sores. --Degree in biochemistry

By anon351754 — On Oct 16, 2013

@ feruze: I'm always amused by statements like this. Guess what? Water is a chemical, too. However, acetone is produced and disposed of naturally in the human body. Check online.

The argument that something comes from nature and is therefore safe is a fallacy, likewise that something made by humans (from ingredients found in nature) is unsafe. Try ingesting botulinum toxin -- that occurs naturally

By anon351752 — On Oct 16, 2013

Nail polish remover (acetone based) also has dyes, perfumes and other ingredients. I suggest going to the chemist and buying pure acetone if you want to try this remedy.

By anon345099 — On Aug 15, 2013

I use prescription at the onset (famciclovir and acyclovir), abreva throughout, and acetone to dry it up at the end.

By anon324546 — On Mar 11, 2013

This is the perfect remedy for someone who can't afford Abreva every time a cold sore rears it's ugly head. I have Celiac Disease and when I accidentally ingest gluten, I get a cold sore. If I put nail polish remover on it, it dries right up and never even erupts into a full blown sore!

I would rather use Abreva if I can afford it but if not, a day of pain (the sting from the acetone) is totally worth trading a week of pain and embarrassment.

By anon318654 — On Feb 08, 2013

Since nail polish remover could be dangerous, I thought of using mouthwash since it is safer to be digested, and it worked wonders. I got rid of my cold sore in a day by putting ice on it then mouthwash as much as possible and whenever I remembered and at night I slept with toothpaste on it. Even though the day before, I had a full blown cold sore, the next day it was gone.

By anon302229 — On Nov 08, 2012

The skin is an organ and a porous one at that. If you've been around someone who eats a lot of garlic, you can smell it not so much on their breath, but coming from the pores of their skin.

Acetone is toxic. I doubt you'd drop dead using it, but why? Besides, there are all kinds of preventatives out there now, so you shouldn't even have to deal with treating a cold sore. L-lysine supplements are popular, the RX called Zovirax can work, and there's Abreva, although there are mixed reviews there.

I have a go-to remedy that's natural: Cold Sores Begone, which I've used for many years. It prevents a cold sore from surfacing when I apply it when I feel the tingle. But I know there are others out there that work similarly. If you want to try what I use, I buy it online. Again, don't put toxic stuff on your skin.

By anon301902 — On Nov 06, 2012

It works very well. Yes, it stings, but if you catch it early, much less so. The acetone dries up the blisters. A little dab will do you every hour.

amazing! And it's a lot less money than abreva.

By burcinc — On Nov 01, 2012

I'm a little scared about this remedy but I'm desperate so I'm going to try it. Will it burn my skin?

By discographer — On Nov 01, 2012

@feruze-- It sounds weird, but actually acetone works really well for cold sores. I used it the last time I had one and it healed it faster than any other remedy I had tried before.

I don't think it's dangerous to use nail polish remover on a cold sore because you don't need to use much. Just a little at the tip of a q-tip is enough. Do this a couple of times before going to bed and also apply some antibiotic ointment on it. It will get smaller by next morning if it hasn't disappeared already.

By strawCake — On Oct 31, 2012

@JessicaLynn - That's a good idea. I've also heard there are supplements you can take to prevent outbreaks of cold sores (and other lesions related to viruses.) I think the supplement is called L-lysine, and I've heard some people have pretty good success with it.

Also, and I know this is easier said than done, but try not to get stressed out. I read somewhere that stress can trigger cold sore outbreaks!

By JessicaLynn — On Oct 30, 2012

If you need to know how to treat a cold sore fast, just go to your local grocery or drug store pharmacy section. There are a ton of remedies out there for cold sore that are safe to use and clear them up fairly quickly! I see commercials for this stuff all the time.

By sunnySkys — On Oct 29, 2012

@betterment - You're right, using nail polish remover for cold sores doesn't exactly sound safe. However, I can kind of understand why someone might get desperate and try this.

First of all, cold sore are very stigmatized in our society, even though lots of people get them. So, it can be very embarrassing to get a cold sore, so most people want them to go away as soon as possible.

Second of all, most people have nail polish remover already in the house. I can see the appeal of using something already on hand to treat a cold sore, rather than having to go to the store and buy something else.

By betterment — On Oct 29, 2012

@feruze - I agree with you. Out of all the cold sore remedies, nail polish remover sounds like the absolute worst idea! In fact, I'm pretty sure most nail polish removers have a warning label about not getting it on your skin! I can't imagine applying that stuff to my skin on purpose.

By bear78 — On Oct 29, 2012

Why in the world would anyone want to use nail polish remover as a cold sore treatment?! That is crazy! It will burn very badly!

I just don't understand this because nail polish remover is a chemical, it is not natural and I don't think it should be used for anything other than removing nail polish.

If anyone is keen on using home remedies for cold sores, try something natural like tea tree oil or witch hazel. You could even use vinegar or salt water if you don't mind the burning.

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